Lawrence Block – One Thousand Dollars a Word

The editor’s name was Warren Jukes. He was a lean sharp-featured man with slender long-fingered hands and a narrow line for a mouth. His black hair was going attractively gray on top and at the temples. As usual, he wore a stylish three-piece suit. As usual, Trevathan felt logy and unkempt in comparison, like a bear having trouble shaking off the torpor of hibernation.

“Sit down, Jim,” Jukes said. “Always a pleasure. Don’t tell me you’re bringing in another manuscript already? It never ceases to amaze me the way you keep grinding them out. Where do you get your ideas, anyway? But I guess you’re tired of that question after all these years.”

He was indeed, and that was not the only thing of which James Trevathan was heartily tired. But all he said was, “No, Warren. I haven’t written another story.”


“I wanted to talk with you about the last one.”

“But we talked about it yesterday,” Jukes said, puzzled. “Over the telephone. I said it was fine and I was happy to have it for the magazine. What’s the title, anyway? It was a play on words, but I can’t remember it offhand.”

‘”A Stitch in Crime,'” Trevathan said.

“Right, that’s it. Good title, good story and all of it wrapped up in your solid professional prose. What’s the problem?”

“Money,” Trevathan said.

“A severe case of the shorts, huh?” The editor smiled. “Well, I’ll be putting a voucher through this afternoon. You’ll have the check early next week. I’m afraid that’s the best I can do, Jimbo. The corporate machinery can only go so fast.”

“It’s not the time,” Trevathan said. “It’s the amount. What are you paying for the story, Warren?”

“Why, the usual. How long was it? Three thousand words, wasn’t it?”

“Thirty-five hundred.”

“So what does that come to? Thirty-five hundred at a nickel a word is what? One seventy-five, right?”

“That’s right, yes.”

“So you’ll have a check in that amount early next week, as soon as possible, and if you want I’ll ring you when I have it in hand and you can come over and pick it up. Save waiting a couple of days for the neither-rain-nor-snow people to get it from my desk to yours.”

“It’s not enough.”

“Beg your pardon?”

“The price,” Trevathan said. He was having trouble with this conversa-tion. He’d written a script for it in his mind on the way to Jukes’s office, and he’d been infinitely more articulate then than now. “I should get more money,” he managed. “A nickel a word is…Warren, that’s no money at all.”

“It’s what we pay, Jim. It’s what we’ve always paid.”



“Do you know how long I’ve been writing for you people, Warren?”

“Quite a few years.”

“Twenty years, Warren.”


“I sold a story called ‘Hanging by a Thread’ to you twenty years ago last month. It ran twenty-two hundred words and you paid me a hundred and ten bucks for it.”

“Well, there you go,” Jukes said.

“I’ve been working twenty years, Warren, and I’m getting the same money now that I got then. Everything’s gone up except my income. When I wrote my first story for you I could take one of those nickels that a word of mine brought and buy a candy bar with it. Have you bought a candy bar recently, Warren?”

Jukes touched his belt buckle. “If I went and bought candy bars,” he said, “my clothes wouldn’t fit me.”

“Candy bars are forty cents. Some of them cost thirty-five. And I still get a nickel a word. But let’s forget candy bars.”

“Fine with me, Jim.”

“Let’s talk about the magazine. When you bought ‘Hanging by a Thread,’ what did the magazine sell for on the stands?”

“Thirty-five cents, I guess.”

“Wrong. Twenty-five. About six months later you went to thirty-five. Then you went to fifty, and after that sixty and then seventy-five. And what does the magazine sell for now?”

“A dollar a copy.”

“And you still pay your authors a nickel a word. That’s really wealth beyond the dreams of avarice, isn’t it, Warren?”

Jukes sighed heavily, propped his elbows on his desk top, tented his fingertips. “Jim,” he said, dropping his voice in pitch, “there are things you’re forgetting. The magazine’s no more profitable than it was twenty years ago. In fact we’re working closer now than we did then. Do you know anything about the price of paper? It makes candy look pretty stable by comparison. I could talk for hours on the subject of the price of paper. Not to mention all the other printing costs, and shipping costs and more other costs than I want to mention or you want to hear about. You look at that buck-a-copy price and you think we’re flying high, but it’s not like that at all. We were doing better way back then. Every single cost of ours has gone through the roof.”

“Except the basic one.”

“How’s that?”

“The price you pay for material. That’s what your readers are buying from you, you know. Stories. Plots and characters. Prose and dialogue. Words. And you pay the same for them as you did twenty years ago. It’s the only cost that’s stayed the same.”

Jukes took a pipe apart and began running a pipe cleaner through the stem. Trevathan started talking about his own costs-his rent, the price of food. When he paused for breath Warren Jukes said, “Supply and demand, Jim.”

“What’s that?”

“Supply and demand. Do you think it’s hard for me to fill the magazine at a nickel a word? See that pile of scripts over there? That’s what this morning’s mail brought. Nine out of ten of those stories are from new writers who’d write for nothing if it got them into print. The other ten percent is from pros who are damned glad when they see that nickel-a-word check instead of getting their stories mailed back to them. You know, I buy just about everything you write for us, Jim. One reason is I like your work, but that’s not the only reason. You’ve been with us for twenty years and we like to do business with our old friends. But you evidently want me to raise your word rate, and we don’t pay more than five cents a word to anybody, because in the first place we haven’t got any surplus in the budget and in the second place we damn well don’t have to pay more than that. So before I raise your rate, old friend, I’ll give your stories back to you. Because I don’t have any choice.”

Trevathan sat and digested this for a few moments. He thought of some things to say but left them unsaid. He might have asked Jukes how the editor’s own salary had fluctuated over the years, but what was the point of that? He could write for a nickel a word or he could not write for them at all. That was the final word on the subject.

“Jim? Shall I put through a voucher or do you want ‘A Stitch in Crime’ back?”

“What would I do with it? No, I’ll take the nickel a word, Warren.”

“If there was a way I could make it more-”

“I understand.”

“You guys should have got yourselves a union years ago. Give you a little collective muscle. Or you could try writing something else. We’re in a squeeze, you know, and if we were forced to pay more for material we’d probably have to fold the magazine altogether. But there are other fields where the pay is better.”

“I’ve been doing this for twenty years, Warren. It’s all I know. My God, I’ve got a reputation in the field, I’ve got an established name-”

“Sure. That’s why I’m always happy to have you in the magazine. As long as I do the editing, Jimbo, and as long as you grind out the copy, I’ll be glad to buy your yarns.”

“At a nickel a word.”


“Nothing personal, Warren. I’m just a little bitter. That’s all.”

“Hey, think nothing of it.” Jukes got to his feet, came around from behind his desk. “So you got something off your chest, and we cleared the air a little. Now you know where you stand. Now you can go on home and knock off something sensational and get it to me, and if it’s up to your usual professional standard you’ll have another check coming your way. That’s the way to double the old income, you know. Just double the old production.”

“Good idea,” Trevathan said.

“Of course it is. And maybe you can try something for another market while you’re at it. It’s not too late to branch out, Jim. God knows I don’t want to lose you, but if you’re having trouble getting by on what we can pay you, well-”

“It’s a thought,” Trevathan said.

Five cents a word.

Trevathan sat at his battered Underwood and stared at a blank sheet of paper. The paper had gone up a dollar a ream in the past year, and he could swear they’d cheapened the quality in the process. Everything cost more, he thought, except his own well-chosen words. They were still trading steadily at a nickel apiece.

Not too late to branch out, Jukes had told him. But that was a sight easier to say than to do. He’d tried writing for other kinds of markets, but detective stories were the only kind he’d ever had any luck with. His mind didn’t seem to produce viable fictional ideas in other areas. When he’d tried writing longer works, novels, he’d always gotten hopelessly bogged down. He was a short-story writer, recognized and frequently anthologized, and he was prolific enough to keep himself alive that way, but-

But he was sick of living marginally, sick of grinding out story after story. And heartily sick of going through life on a nickel a word.

What would a decent word rate be?

Well, if they paid him twenty-five cents a word, then he’d at least be keeping pace with the price of a candy bar. Of course after twenty years you wanted to do a little better than stay even. Say they paid him a dollar a word. There were writers who earned that much. Hell, there were writers who earned a good deal more than that, writers whose books wound up on best-seller lists, writers who got six-figure prices for screenplays, writers who wrote themselves rich.

One thousand dollars a word.

The phrase popped into his mind, stunning in its simplicity, and before he was aware of it his fingers had typed the words on the page before him. He sat and looked at it, then worked the carriage return lever and typed the phrase again.

One thousand dollars a word.

He studied what he had typed, his mind racing on ahead, playing with ideas, shaking itself loose from its usual stereotyped thought patterns.

Well, why not? Why shouldn’t he earn a thousand dollars a word? Why not branch out into a new field?

Why not?

He took the sheet from the typewriter, crumpled it into a ball, pegged it in the general direction of the wastebasket. He rolled a new sheet in its place and sat looking at its blankness, waiting, thinking. Finally, word by halting word, he began to type.

Trevathan rarely rewrote his short stories. At a nickel a word he could not afford to. Furthermore, he had acquired a facility over the years which enabled him to turn out acceptable copy in first draft. Now, however, he was trying something altogether new and different, and so he felt the need to take his time getting it precisely right. Time and again he yanked false starts from the typewriter, crumpled them, hurled them at the wastebasket.

Until finally he had something he liked.

He read it through for the fourth or fifth time, then took it from the typewriter and read it again. It did the job, he decided. It was concise and clear and very much to the point.

He reached for the phone. When he’d gotten through to Jukes he said, “Warren? I’ve decided to take your advice.”

“Wrote another story for us? Glad to hear it.”

“No,” he said, “another piece of advice you gave me. I’m branching out in a new direction.”

“Well, I think that’s terrific,” Jukes said. “I really mean it. Getting to work on something big? A novel?”

“No, a short piece.”

“But in a more remunerative area?”

“Definitely. I’m expecting to net a thousand dollars a word for what I’m doing this afternoon.”

“A thousand-” Warren Jukes let out a laugh, making a sound similar to the yelp of a startled terrier. “Well, I don’t know what you’re up to, Jim, but let me wish you the best of luck with it. I’ll tell you one thing. I’m damned glad you haven’t lost your sense of humor.”

Trevathan looked again at what he’d written. “I’ve got a gun. Please fill this paper sack with thirty thousand dollars in used tens and twenties and fifties or I’ll be forced to blow your stupid head off.”

“Oh, I’ve still got my sense of humor,” he said. “Know what I’m going to do, Warren? I’m going to laugh all the way to the bank.”

The End

Categories: Block, Lawrence